Away from the battleground that is Brexit, the national housing shortage remains Britain’s biggest domestic policy challenge, and a critical issue for local authorities and their partners.
Zurich Municipal’s latest social housing whitepaper, which is based on interviews with senior leaders from housing associations across the UK, sheds light on the wide-ranging challenges and opportunities facing the social housing sector – and on its complex relationship with local government.
Let’s start with the figures. If we look at the situation in England, according to the National Housing Federation (NHF), just 4,502 homes for social rent were built in 2017-18. Yet research published last year by the NHF, Crisis and Heriot-Watt University, concluded that an additional 90,000 homes a year are needed for social rent. That shortfall is eyewatering. But it also highlights an opportunity for local government and housing associations to work together to tackle the problem.
A factor discussed in our report is the extent to which local authorities and housing associations currently cooperate to deliver social housing. The report highlights areas for improvement, both for councils with pre-existing or growing stock, and those who have transferred this stock to housing associations.
Column sponsored and supplied by Zurich Municipal
One issue for housing associations is access to land. As one CEO remarked of their local authority: “They have an ambitious build and development programme. They are either keeping land to themselves or they’ve already assigned it to other housing associations. If we are serious about developing, then we need strong ties and relationships with local government. If we can’t build, what’s our purpose?”
If councils are serious about expanding housing provision for residents on the lowest incomes, it is important they are willing to challenge their existing processes in order to identify potential barriers to progress. For example, is the approach to planning actually enabling sufficient social housing development? Is politics taking precedence over the affordable housing needs of local people? And where land has been allocated to build on, is it fit for purpose, or is it vulnerable to flooding or other risks?
Then there is the quality of the buildings themselves. As an insurer, we see properties after things have gone wrong; in the aftermath of fires, flooding and other major loss events. Often, the building standards are simply not good enough. There can be particular risks when certain methods of construction are used, such as lightweight timber frames without adequate fire-stops between floors, or proper fire compartmentation. This means that buildings are potentially unsafe. Local authorities need to ensure real rigour is shown towards the quality of construction throughout housing development programmes.
In short, we need government at all levels to revive the legacy approach to social housing – to building homes we can all be proud of down the line. If you think about some of the council houses of the 1950s, while they may look stylistically of their era, they have stood the test of time. They’re still standing, and people are still living in them safely. We need to be able to do exactly the same now for new properties.
Allison Whittington, head of housing, Zurich Municipal